The inner workings of Judge Daryl Loomis's mind are about as interesting as a chair.
Evil works in mysterious ways.
Finding out the inner workings of the minds of the criminally insane isn't something a lot of us want to do in our spare time, yet this uncomfortable internal world is the fodder of plenty of horror films, where fans eat it up. Unsettling and disconnected, The Devil's Chair, from young horror director Adam Mason, takes us on one such journey, full of demons, axes, and annoying monologues.
Facts of the Case
Looking for some cheap thrills, Nick (Andrew Howard, Revolver) takes his girlfriend to an abandoned mental hospital so they can drop acid and, you know, see what happens. Just as they're starting to peak, they find a spooky chair in the basement. His girlfriend sits down and the chair immediately comes to life, strapping her down and mutilating her. Convicted of her murder, Nick has sat for years in an institution trying to quell the delusions of what happened. One day, a psychiatry professor makes a deal with the hospital to take Nick back to the scene of the crime, to see if experiencing the place will awaken the truth behind Nick's experience.
While The Devil's Chair begins very poorly, the film gets better from there. When we first meet Nick, he's going into the asylum with his girlfriend. While he's clearly not totally right in the head, there's little reason to believe that he's dangerous. His reaction when the chair attacks seems reasonable and, having seen what happened for ourselves, we know that his conviction is unfounded. Of course, "the chair killed her" isn't the best defense in the world, so there's no doubt that they'll find him guilty of the crime. When Nick is offered his release in exchange for this new "therapy," we know how this is going down. The professor and his students that he's involved in his experiment are gung-ho to get inside the abandoned asylum and much too curious about what they'll find. Nick, much as he may think this experiment is as crazy as he is, can't stand another day in the hospital and jumps at the chance to get out, even under these dubious circumstances. Still convinced the chair is real, he tries to persuade the group to stop and not reawaken whatever it was that killed his girlfriend. This is a horror film, however, so they clearly do not listen.
This first part of The Devil's Chair, full of dialogue and exposition, belies what is to come. When the chair is activated, whoever sits in it is transported to another realm where a bloodthirsty demon lies in wait. These scenes are strongly reminiscent of the Leviathan scenes in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 with people chased through weirdly lit, trap-filled hallways. Nick's role in this, given his prior experience, is as a savior who feels he must rescue the others to redeem himself. With the whole group in this other dimension, however, everyone's true personalities and motives come to the surface, and surviving betrayal becomes at least as important as surviving the monster.
This is a film about delusion, though, so everything that comes to this point is suspect. The final third of the film twists the ideas previously presented, brings us back to the start of the film and, in a horror film that had been almost entirely devoid of blood, lays the gore on brutally thick. Was any of what we saw real, or was it all in the head of one or more of these characters? The "reality" of this situation is a surprising and grisly change of tone, but it certainly isn't out of step with the rest of the film. Director Adam Mason simply kept the violence lying in wait and, when it strikes, it strikes hard. Using an antiseptic color palette and an artificially grainy look, The Devil's Chair reminds me more than a little of the Saw franchise, though it takes some of these torture conventions in different, often more unsettling, directions.
The characters and performances are overplayed for comic value and it works, at least until the big change. At this point, the characters' personalities mean much less than what is being done to their bodies. Because we learn about the characters during apparent delusions, it takes away from the work done to build them up. The creature effects look surprisingly good for its budget, and they rightfully keep the monster's appearances to a minimum to keep us from looking too closely at it. The very end of the film is very funny and sets up nicely for a sequel if that's where they want to go. If not, it still stands as a nicely open-ended finale and the film would likely be best served staying that way.
Sony's release of The Devil's Chair is as good as could be hoped for with this small independent film. The anamorphic transfer is limited by the intentionally grainy look so, while it is free from transfer errors, it still doesn't look that great. The surround sound is very good with clear dialogue and good separation in the sound effects. You can really hear those stab wounds. For extras, an hour-long featurette lends insight into what the filmmakers were hoping to accomplish and gives a lot of detail on the creature effects. This is a sound release for this low-budget horror entry.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I said, the opening moments of The Devil's Chair are terrible. The first lines are a monologue from Nick, who describes that everyone else is dead, but that they're the lucky ones because he has to live with what happened. During the monologue, we see flashes of bloodied, tormented people we've never met screaming for help. There's no doubt who the killer is, and it undermines much of what is very good about the film. The strong concepts help to forget the opening but, in the back of your mind, you know what will occur. Without this opening, it would be easy to call The Devil's Chair a well-conceived, atmospheric indie horror film. With it, the film has a good premise and some very good concepts that undermines itself by its need to explain.
The people behind The Devil's Chair clearly love the horror genre and, based on the potential of some of the ideas, Adam Mason looks like a director to watch. Who knows, he could be the next Eli Roth, who followed the mediocre Cabin Fever with the astounding Hostel.
Guilty of some poor execution but, based on the quality of the concepts, The Devil's Chair will have its sentence commuted. Case dismissed.
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